Alaska Family Cruising

By Janice Fuhrman:

My husband and I were afraid we might be in for some rough seas this past summer when our 17-year-old son, Adam, agreed to go on a family cruise to Alaska—only, as he announced to us, “if you keep your distance.”

I had thought that a cruise ship might be the perfect family solution, with enough novelty, activities, and different features to keep everybody happy. And in the end it turned out to be smooth sailing, with all four members of our family enjoying both the cruise experience and Alaska in our own individual ways. This was the first time I took my family on a cruise, and I can now say that cruising seems to be uniquely suited to families with divergent interests and needs. The Princess Cruise Line was a good fit—and from my research, many competing cruise lines seem similar.

As harsh as my son’s terms may have sounded on the surface, we were actually relieved that he was exerting his independence, and that we could exert ours without having to keep constant tabs on two teenaged boys.

We departed from Seattle in mid-July under gray skies for a week’s cruise through the Inland Passage aboard the Star Princess. From the beginning, my husband, Spencer, an avid sailor, loved the nautical aspects of the journey. Nothing else could have roused this late sleeper out of bed at 5 a.m. on vacation except the chance to witness the ship landing or launching or whatever its latest maneuver was (I slept through most of it).

As parents, we enjoyed both our own freedom and the freedom we could give Adam and Nick, 14, without worrying. We were on a ship, after all, a self-contained mini-city. While having all their needs met, they couldn’t wander off too far; they couldn’t be spirited away by strangers. And they relished their independence—staying up late, roaming the ship on their own—and perhaps more importantly, the all-you-can-eat abundance of 24-hour dining.

Nick was entranced by the idea that he could order room service at 3 a.m. (Not that he ever actually did.) A couple of times he did order room-service cheeseburgers an hour before we headed off to one of the ship’s several restaurants for a four-course dinner—and ate it all. I loved not having to make any of those meals.

We kept our promise to keep our distance, and Adam reveled in the opportunity to socialize with teens from various places on the globe at the Youth and Teen Center (ages 13 to 17). The center offered organized games and activities, including a hip-hop dance lesson, and the teens also used the club as a meeting place before setting off to explore the ship and its many offerings, which in the case of the Star Princess included several pools (indoor and out), a fitness room, hamburger and hot dog grill, pizza place, ice cream shop, 24-hour buffet, hot tub, and an outdoor movie screen.

In fact, there were programs tailored to each age group of children: Princess Pelicans, ages 3–7, and Princess Pirateers, ages 8–12, had separate rooms with arts and crafts, videos, cartoons, scavenger hunts, sports tournaments, and other age-appropriate activities.

I’d read online before going on the cruise that the Star Princess aimed for a mid-market crowd, and wasn’t sure what that would mean. Would the food be mediocre? The beds lumpy? The help unhelpful? It meant none of those things.

Cruise ship staterooms are usually small, but on the other hand, ours had everything we needed: a balcony with a sliding glass door that let in lots of light, a queen bed, mini-refrigerator, TV, desk, upholstered chair, large closet, bedside tables, and bathroom with shower (no tub). It wasn’t luxuriously appointed, but it was pleasant and clean. The boys shared their own inside stateroom across the hall (we paid extra to guarantee the location of their room). Nick objected to the lack of a window and frequently joined us on our balcony. Adam proclaimed the room was fine with him—he did nothing but sleep and shower there anyway.

The Star Princess has a capacity about 1,200 staff and 2,700 guests, and it was a wonder that so many could be fed so well. Choices were abundant and in some cases, extravagant: New York Steak, lobster tails, and Alaska King Crab were some of the highlights of our dinners, but every night there were many appealing choices on the menu. There were two more-upscale restaurants, for which the ship charged a $15 per person additional fee, and we originally intended to try them, but we decided the food was good enough for us in the regular dining rooms. Service was uniformly good. What some servers may have lacked in knowledge or alertness, they made up for in friendliness and graciousness.

All of this would have been stimulating enough even if we hadn’t left port, but we also had Alaska to see and experience. The highlight for all of us was the Tracy Arm fjord, but we also enjoyed numerous sightings of dolphins and whales, glaciers, densely forested mountain peaks, and even some shopping opportunities in Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, and Victoria, British Columbia.

In Juneau, we purchased a half-day excursion to the Mendenhall Glacier and a salmon hatchery with the largest fish ladder in Alaska for the reasonable price of $40 per person. Any excursion involving dogs sleds, helicopters, or fishing was more than $100 per person—sometimes much more. The Dog Sled & Glacier Adventure by Helicopter, for instance, included helicopter flightseeing and dogsledding on a glacier and cost a whopping $579 per person. Sounds thrilling, but at that cost I can’t imagine many families are going to bite.

A word about cost: For several years we had been wanting to cruise to Alaska but the price always discouraged us. When we looked this past spring, we found it was about 20–30 percent less expensive. For a balcony stateroom and an inside stateroom across the hall for four passengers, we paid a little over $5,000 for a seven-night cruise, and then another $1,000 aboard the ship for tips, excursions, a spa treatment, a cyber golf session, cocktails, and specialty coffee drinks.

Many of the Alaska ships with Princess (and other cruise lines) depart from Seattle, so we decided to arrive in Seattle a couple of days early. Using a Seattle City Pass, we were able to hit most of the tourist spots: the Space Needle, Seattle Aquarium, a harbor tour, and, of course, Pike Place Market and the seafood restaurants along Alaska Way. All of these attractions were convenient to the stylish Hotel Max, which featured a fascinating black-and-white photography collection on the doors to the rooms and other modern art pieces throughout the property. Hotel Max even has a Shippin In & Shippin Out package for cruisers that includes a Seattle map, snacks, coupons, travel toiletries, and a chauffeured ride to the ship terminal.

Our last night in Seattle before boarding the ship, my husband and I had a fun and delicious meal made up of small tastes of a variety of wines and bites at Purple Café and Wine Bar downtown while the boys hung out in their room at the Hotel Max watching TV, ordering room service—and generally keeping their distance.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Janice Fuhrman is a freelance travel and wine writer who lives outside San Francisco.

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